Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Transhumanist self-mutilation

Wired has a story up by John Borland featuring one Lepht Anonym, who performs surgery on herself to implant various small devices intended to augment her sensory abilities. “You just have to get deep enough to open a hole and put something in,” she says. Take a minute and read this short article before continuing here, as it is one of those stories that cannot possibly be improved in the retelling.

Lepht AnonymI can’t be sure, of course, but I’m willing to bet that had such a story appeared in the news anywhere in the modern West up until very recently — the past decade at most — it would have been given a headline more like, “A Curious Case of Self-Mutilation.” But look at how readily Ms. Anonym and Mr. Borland fall into the transhumanist mindset to account for what she is doing to herself (and this despite her contempt for transhumanist theoreticians). When young people cut themselves and do not attempt to stick anything into the incision — as so many today, especially young women, do — it is still relatively obvious even in our tolerant times that they are in need of psychological assistance. That, after all, is pointless cutting, a cry for help. But let a young woman cut herself and implant some foreign and potentially toxic material into her body, and she becomes worthy of respectful attention, a pioneer. Somebody has to show the way for the next step after tattooing and piercing lose their edge, right?

“Self-mutilation” may be one of those ideas that become too old-fashioned to survive in a transhumanist-influenced future. It will be hard enough to maintain any serious idea of mutilation when the transgressive “creativity” that the artistic temperament currently unleashes against innocent canvas is turned on flesh. It might seem as if any diminishment of capacity would constitute mutilation on transhumanist assumptions, but that caveat is unlikely to survive its libertarian relativism.

In this case, however, even “doing her own thing” does not seem to be the last word. She is Lepht Anonym — left nameless — as if despite doing something so distinctive, she does not seek distinction, but rather wishes to be always in motion, to be the one who can be defined by no name. How can there be self-mutilation if one denies there is a self to do it, or do it to?

[Image: Lepht Anonym, courtesy of Wired.]

5 comments:

  1. "It might seem as if any diminishment of capacity would constitute mutilation on transhumanist assumptions, but that caveat is unlikely to survive its libertarian relativism."

    It's true that a more socially dominant transhumanism will possess a different character than the philosophy currently maintained by a small number of speculative technophiles. Counter-cultural elements may embrace it more thoroughly, bringing a kind of 'techno-punk.' Over time, the idea may even become banal and taken for granted by the average person. But however it goes, is the end of this arc necessarily relativist?

    A transhumanist, after all, is similar by analogy to a classical progressive. If I were feeling cheeky, I'd say that the only difference is a kind of humanist pantheism- while the traditional progressive believes in the further perfection of humanity, the transhumanist describes a directional universe in the same vein, a long arc towards complexity. And progressives have always had their sins. In adding a sense of natural law, haven't transhumanists nudged their philosophy closer to moral objectivity?

    It is always sad to see a troubled person made out to be valorous instead of helped. But in this case, she could only maintain her own delusions by (explicitly, I note) rejecting the foundation of her own philosophical refuge. She joined a community because she needed a community- I wonder if, in another age, she might not have been a Christian flagellant or a Hindu ascetic?

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  2. Here's the idiotic companion blog:

    http://sapiensanonym.blogspot.com/

    "i have been known to slice my arms open for shits'n'giggles, sure, and do a fair amount of damage in the process (none of this emo cat-scratch bullshit, i've split my arm to the tendons like the little psychopath i sort of am), but this is not something i do when properly medicated. i need a better way of communicating that."

    If people want to kill themselves, should we institute fascist laws to prevent them from doing so? This is idiocy, but is it not a necessary byproduct of a free society? This is not China.

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  3. I’m not sure I understand fully the import of Jonathan’s comment, in part because I do not see the role of “natural law” in transhumanism. I suspect that is connected with my sense that the goal of “complexity” that he ascribes to transhumanist progressivism sounds just like the open-endedness of moral relativism. In any case, I’m prepared to agree that in another age Lepht Anonym might have found a different context for her impulses. But what I take that to mean is that, in our day, what is noteworthy remains the cohort of those interested in normalizing her activities — that is to say, those who find what she is doing, in Kyle Munkittrick’s immortal summation, “cool.”

    Michael Anissimov is too smart to fall into the “cool” trap, but his response is nevertheless wide of the mark. It is true that the price of a free society is that people will do stupid things. But why would anyone think that one must accept all stupid things, and that any effort to deal with these stupid things must involve “fascist laws” or Chinese-style censorship? Leaving aside that totalitarian legal systems seem themselves to provide many incentives for stupid behavior, why not consider how the structure of a liberal democracy might help curb the stupidity of its members? Is there no role for social norms and public opinion short of law? I imagine that only from the point of view of the most dogmatic and thoughtless libertarianism, one that amounts to advocacy of willful license over a regime of ordered liberty, could one believe that any consideration of limiting stupidity — even just calling a spade a spade, as my post intended — must eventuate in a totalitarian or oppressive legal system.

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  4. Leaving aside that totalitarian legal systems seem themselves to provide many incentives for stupid behavior, why not consider how the structure of a liberal democracy might help curb the stupidity of its members? Is there no role for social norms and public opinion short of law?

    A reasonable social standard would be one that would discourage or offer social disapproval to choices that diminish capability. After all, this is usually what is meant by the term self-mutilation. Many people, including myself, would find this acceptable.

    The problem is that social censer is often hijacked by those promoting ideological agendas that may be incompatible with those who seek to improve their capabilities. Those who oppose radical life extension are a perfect example of this dynamic.

    The key is to create and promote social norms that discourage self-destructive activities without interfering with those who seek to make ourselves more capable. This requires stripping out of society ideologies that are hostile, in any form, to self-enhancement by competent individuals.

    An honest critique of transhumanism must be free from the illegitimate influences of "deathists". Purging the deathists from your ranks will increase the legitimacy of your critiques.

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  5. Thanks for this. Excellent point about self-mutilation masking itself as transgressive transhumanism.

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